By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) After dispatching the St. Louis Blues in six games, the Blackhawks are now awaiting the winner of the playoff series between the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche. Which opponent should Chicago fans hope to face in the conference semifinals? Let’s take a look at both teams and how they stack up. Colorado leads the series 3-2, with Game 6 set for tonight in Minnesota.
Minnesota: The Wild feature a number of star players and some nice complementary depth. Their two biggest stars, forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, signed identical contracts two summers ago and will be with the Wild for the foreseeable future. Parise is one of the better all-around players in the game, while Suter is typically at or near the top of the league in total ice time. Other quality veterans like forwards Mikko Koivu (who is pretty much an offensive clone of his more popular brother, Saku) and Jason Pominville contribute to the scoring depth. Jonas Brodin, 20, is an up-and-coming offensive defenseman. I think he’ll be an NHL star before it’s all said and done.
Colorado: The Avalanche remind me of the 2009 Blackhawks. They are loaded with young star players and arrived a year ahead of schedule. Forward Nathan MacKinnon was the top overall pick in the 2013 draft, and he’s a shoo-in to win the Calder Trophy for the league’s top rookie. He has 10 points in five playoff games and has been the best player on the ice in this series against Minnesota. Paul Stastny, Ryan O’Reilly and Gabriel Landeskog, along with MacKinnon, are as strong a top four as nearly every team in the league — excluding the Blackhawks.
On the blue line, former first overall pick Erik Johnson is finally starting to become a solid, if unspectacular, NHL defenseman.
Colorado’s goaltender, Semyon Varlamov, is the reason the Avalanche are even a conversation. Much more on him later.
Minnesota: The Wild have shown a willingness to completely shut down their offense and wait for the opponent to make mistakes. They clog up the neutral zone and take away those long stretch passes the Blackhawks love to make. It’s frustrating to watch, especially considering Chicago’s typical unwillingness to adapt to games of this style.
Colorado: The altitude in Colorado is a real concern. From all reports, it takes as many as three days to completely adjust to the effects of playing a mile above sea level. With home-ice advantage, that could help the Avalanche grab an early advantage in the series.
When looking at the numbers, it’s amazing that Colorado is leading the series 3-2. Minnesota has the edge in nearly every category, both traditional and fancy metrics. Here’s their breakdown in their series so far.
Shots (all situations)
Shots (even strength)
Corsi* (all situations)
Minnesota: 325 (56.8 percent, best in playoffs)
Colorado: 247 (43.2 percent, worst in playoffs)
Corsi (even strength)
Minnesota: 264 (59.1 percent, best in playoffs)
Colorado: 185 (40.9 percent, worst in playoffs)
As of now, the Wild are the top possession team in the playoffs, while the Avalanche are the worst. Looking at these numbers, you might be asking yourself, “How in the world are the Wild trailing in the series? What is Colorado doing to not only survive, but win these games?”
Well, there is one great equalizer in hockey: a red-hot goaltender.
Semyon Varlamov hasn’t just been the difference in this series; he could also be a legitimate contender for the Hart Trophy (league MVP). He led the league in wins (41), ranked second among starters in save percentage (.927) and boasted a 2.41 goals against average. He’s the reason the Avalanche are where they are today.
A look into the Avs’ regular season also shows that they were also near the bottom of the league in overall Corsi at 46.6 percent, which ranked 27th, ahead of only Edmonton, Toronto and Buffalo. Hockey observers have been waiting for the bottom to fall out for Colorado all season, but it hasn’t happened yet. It likely won’t with Varlamov tending goal in this fashion.
Of course, their PDO (shooting % + save %) ranked second in the league at 102.0. Only the Boston Bruins had a higher PDO (102.2). As a comparison, the Blackhawks were 13th overall, with a 100.1 PDO.
Conversely, the Wild have been dominating puck possession in this series, but they find themselves facing elimination tonight. Why? Their goalies have not been good. Their playoff save percentage is 13th out of 16 teams, at 89.1 percent.
When the series began, Ilya Bryzgalov was in net for the Wild. In his two starts (both losses), he surrendered seven goals. Midway through Game 2, he was replaced, permanently, by Darcy Kuemper, who had been out with a concussion. Since taking over for Bryzgalov, Kuemper has saved 78 of 83 Avalanche shots and is 2-1 with a 1.40 GAA and a .940 save percentage. If he can continue playing at this level, the Wild can certainly win two games in a row and take the series.
Numbers Breakdown vs. Blackhawks
Now, let’s take a look at the two teams’ performance against the Blackhawks this season. Each team had a winning record against Chicago.
Minnesota vs. Chicago Colorado vs. Chicago
Record: 3-2-0 Record: 3-1-1
Goals for: 14 Goals for: 17
Goals against: 15 Goals against: 14
Corsi for: 224 Corsi for: 201
Corsi against: 277 Corsi against: 350
Shots for: 151 Shots for: 117
Shots against: 143 Shots against: 199
The numbers above show that the Blackhawks had a fairly impressive level of dominance over both teams despite being on the losing end more often. Again, we go back to Varlamov’s dominance of the Blackhawks. He’s been the obvious difference in the head-to-head games with the Blackhawks.
As for the Wild, it’s pretty rare to see a team outshoot their opponent but lose the Corsi battle. That shows that the Wild were blocking a ton of shots against the Blackhawks, or Chicago was missing the net like crazy.
So with the stats I’ve presented, who is the better matchup for the Blackhawks? Honestly, when I began this column, I thought the answer would be simple. There was no way the Wild could stack up. However, the research has proved that the Wild have actually been tougher competition for the Blackhawks this regular season, while the Avalanche was almost totally dependent on Varlamov. It’s really a toss-up.
It’s a matter of picking one’s poison. Would you rather face a shutdown team who will force the Blackhawks out of their games in Minnesota? Or is it better to face a team the Blackhawks have handled statistically, but one that features the league’s top goalie?
I believe Chicago can beat both teams. If I had to make a prediction today, I’d say Blackhawks over Wild in five and Blackhawks over Avs in six.
Jay Zawaski covers the Blackhawks for CBSChicago.com and 670 The Score. Follow him on Twitter at @JayZawaski670.
*** Corsi: Corsi is a statistic used to measure possession. It is the sum of shots on goal, missed shots and blocked shots. So, for instance, if the Blackhawks have 25 shots on goal, 10 missed shots and 10 blocked shots, their “Corsi for” would be 45. If Chicago allowed 20 shots, blocked 10 shots and the opponent missed 15 times, its “Corsi against” would be 45. It’s actually pretty simple. For more information on hockey’s advanced metrics movement, check out these links: